Anonymity, Presence, and the Dialogic Self in a Technological Culture
By Rob Anderson
This Article Summary written by: Michelle Maiese, Conflict Research Consortium
Anderson, Rob. "Anonymity, Presence, and the Dialogic Self in a Technological Culture" in The Reach of Dialogue: Confirmation, Voice, and Community, eds. Rob Anderson, Kenneth N. Cissna, and Ronald C. Arnett. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1994.
In the social arena, quality of communication is often judged by the possibility of dialogue. Some have suggested that machinery of the media has made genuine dialogue impossible and that uniquely human communication has been sacrificed in our zeal for information. Anderson wishes to consider whether this view is correct. Various questions should be explored. How fragile is human dialogue? Does technology such as mass media diminish or enhance opportunities for dialogue? What can an enlarged conception of dialogue contribute to individuals' sense of self in an age of MTV, beepers, cell phones, electronic bulletin boards and newspapers, teleconferencing, and "virtual reality"?
To explore these questions, Anderson identifies four modes of inquiry through which to explore the dialogic process. These modes focus on the philosophical/theoretical, the interpersonal, the technological, and the self. Next, he examines several criticisms of media culture and what he calls the "technological region" of dialogue. (92) Is it true that technology has dealt dialogue a severe blow? Anderson argues that the new electronic media in fact has the potential to contribute to an "expanded presence" that increases possibilities for dialogue. He wishes to explore the relationship between dialogue, technology, and the self. In his view, technological media and inner experience, far from inhibiting dialogue, both offer fresh perspectives.
Dialogue is a relationally-based process of communication in which participants open themselves to change. Contrary to what many scholars think, Anderson does not believe that dialogue depends on the limited context of unmediated face-to-face interaction. He also views self as a fully dialogic concept. He suggests that to better understand the dynamics of dialogue, we should further explore these notions of technology and self.
Some critics suggest that technology carries with it certain values that are antithetical to dialogue. Many of the perceived threats to interpersonal communication in a technological culture revolve around the issue of anonymity. For example, some suggest that technology leads to distant human relationships. Persons immersed in a technological culture become mere consumers of products, alienated from others and ready to handle other person as they would handle objects. Other critics argue that technology has led to a culture of individualism and narcissism, neither of which supports dialogue. Television in particular is thought to encourage selfishness and alienation and to diminish possibilities for public communication. Our television-based culture lacks the historical perspective and room for unanticipated consequences that genuine dialogue requires.
Other critics maintain that mass media actually stifles minority views. Those who perceive themselves to hold a minority view begin to inhibit the ways in which they voice their concerns, while those with more popular views become more likely to speak. Because the majority speaks more, their voices are more frequently represented in the media. As a result, majority speakers increasingly believe that they are more representative of society than they really are. The minority, on the other hand, becomes even more silent. This is what Noelle-Neumann (1984) has called the "spiral of silence." (96) Still others maintain that technology encourages broad-based social conditions that foster anonymity. People begin to speak to roles and bureaucracies rather than to unique individuals. The possibility of being changed by the discourse, which is essential to dialogue, is absent.
However, from the standpoint of communication studies, it seems that the media have the potential not only to inhibit, but also to enhance dialogic encounters. Indeed, technology might be seen as a new set of possibilities for dialogue. Far from robbing humanity of space for dialogue, electronic media might be understood as providing a new region in which to implement dialogue. After all, countless technological projects center on human cooperation. Anderson admits that while face-to-face interaction is ideal in some ways, it can sometimes become an unnecessary constraint on successful dialogue. Are there ways that technologically mediated messages can enhance dialogue?
To the extent that "new media" allows for greater interactivity, it appears to be reducing the perceived interpersonal distance that technology originally fostered. As media evolve, mediums of communication become more life-like and allow for enhanced communication. Anonymity and alienation are not necessary consequences of technological media. Rather, mediated relationships can sometimes make relationships more mutual and dialogical. Some use the term "telelogic communication" to refer to dialogue between people at a distance who use both conventional and unconventional language and electronic communication channels. Such communication is often geographically and temporally unbounded and potentially involves millions of people who share a common interest. As in the case of face-to-face interpersonal communication, there is potential for mutuality. Such communication simply takes place within a "quasi-public, quasi-private" context that does not fit traditional categories.
Forms of media that may actually increase opportunities for dialogue include interactive television systems, computer bulletin board systems, and teleconferencing. These technologies blur traditional boundaries between public and private, between personal and impersonal, and between anonymity and presence. Thus, they raise questions about the locus of the self. What is the link between technology and self in the context of dialogue? According to Anderson, modern society has made technology and media interdependent with the self. We have begun to define ourselves through our contexts.
The scholarship of Mikhail Bakhtin has expanded our notion of what counts as dialogue. His work also illuminates the relationship between technology and self in the study of dialogue. Bakhtin describes a self that partakes in dialogue at the boundary between inner and outer human existence. Once technology is understood as one of the artifices designed to help humans extend their capacity for communication, it no longer appears to have a depersonalizing effect. Through his analysis, Bakhtin illustrated that the technology of writing, though unidirectional in its message, is yet another avenue to dialogue. The basis of meaning is itself dialogical, and different character speaking from perspectives that differ from our own can serve a dialogical function. Actual physical presence is not necessary for dialogic experience. Various forms of media serve to enhance a dialogic self at the margin of inner/outer experience. Thus, although the critics of media systems are justifiably concerned about the negative effects of anonymity, the overall tendency of these new media forms is toward increased presence and new possibilities for dialogue.